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Crafting 'Ozark's' Final Episodes: Revenge, a Marriage 'Gauntlet' and That Car Crash

Creator and showrunner Chris Mundy says he has known how the money-laundering drama will end since the end of Season 1.
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in 'Ozark'

Netflix

For Ozark's Chris Mundy, the end has been a long time coming.

The creator and showrunner has been immersed in the money-laundering world of Byrde family for the last half-dozen years, first creating the foursome as a typical suburban unit whose patriarch, Marty (Jason Bateman, who also executive produces and directs), made a rash decision by agreeing to make amends to a Mexican drug cartel by working to clean and move their money. Marty moved his family down to the Lake of the Ozarks area of Missouri where he and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney, who also serves as co-executive producer) quickly slid deeper down the rabbit hole of criminality almost as immediately as the premiere season began to play on Netflix in the summer of 2017.

Over the course of four seasons, the elder Byrdes and eventually their children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) became increasingly entangled with local Missouri criminals, crooked lawyers, additional cartel power players, law enforcement, and the mafia. Their relationships saw a lot of loss over the seasons, sometimes at the hands of new allies, such as Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), and sometimes through deals they made themselves. The dirtier their souls (even if not always their hands) got as time went on, the higher the stakes grew for the show marching to its series finale.

But Mundy has known where the show needed to end, at least emotionally, since "before I wrote the first episode of Season 2," he tells Metacritic. While he didn't know the specific details of the dialogue spoken or glances shared in the final moments of his streaming series, he knew always knew "the Byrdes' building of their own myth was going to be part of it."

"One of the things that was our marching orders for ourselves as a writers' room was, 'Building a myth, creating a curse.' And if you created a curse, in some way, at any moment, that thing could capture you," he explains. 

That is, in part, why he and his writers' room began the final season with a seemingly out-of-nowhere car crash that saw all four Byrde family members in danger. They had been in perilous situations before (and escaped them), but then it was always because of their own doing — the company they keep, the criminal world they got involved in. 

"It was a moment of relative quiet and peace, but those things could come at any minute. It's just a reminder that besides the literal things in the world, like Ruth or the Navarro cartel or whatever, there's a randomness to fate as well, and it plays in with the idea of religion we use over the course of the [final] seven episodes," he says.

In embarking upon the final season of Ozark, one thing that was clear in Mundy's writers' room was that the family unit had to remain the core of the story, with Marty and Wendy's marriage the bullseye. 

"From the beginning of the series, they were living on a very slippery slope: They made this terrible deal with the devil and they were trying to undo it. But we wanted, now that they were in it, to get to the point where they had to be in or out of that marriage — just like the kids had to be in or out of that family — and really examine it in this way of, 'OK, at what point is saying, "I love you unconditionally" a stupid thing to say?'" Mundy explains.

"We always just want to delve into various issues that people might have in their own life and their own marriage — just through this crazy prism. And so, for us, it was, these stories you tell yourself, do you start to believe them? We wanted to question Wendy's sanity — like, does she start to believe Ben's not really dead? And Marty's watching her go deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole, and he does love her, but at what point is it not healthy to love her? And at what point is the smartest thing to do to put some limitations on that love?" he continues.

Although Marty was initially the Byrde family member that brought them into this seedy, underbelly world, Wendy is the one who has really taken the power and come into her own with it. She has also grown into, arguably, a very different person than the one Marty fell in love with and originally married. (It's hard to imagine he imagined she'd be capable of having her own brother killed way back then, for instance.) But she is also one who is very aware of these changes, and the challenges that come with them, repeatedly verbally acknowledging that she knows she is hard to love.

In a pivotal scene at the top of the ninth episode in the final season, Mundy points out, she basically tells Marty, "I have learned who I am, and now you're free to love that person or not." That is a "gauntlet" for him, Mundy says.

As the elder Byrdes are navigating their tricky dealings with multiple Navarros, the FBI, and a new lawyer, they also have to contend with kids on diverging paths. Although Jonah was the character who used to be able to rationalize all of the seemingly crazy changes his parents were making to his life, losing his uncle Ben (Tom Pelphrey) was a turning point that pushed him to rebel — sort of. While he didn't completely turn away from a life of crime, he began to work for Ruth instead of his parents, carving out as much independence as he could. On the flip side, Charlotte, who struggled with the family's new life in the beginning, now not only works with her parents, but also lies for them.

"Once we ended Season 3 with Jonah's realization about what happened to Ben and shooting those windows out, it was almost like a coming of age for him in a lot of ways," Mundy says. "It was full license to completely go there on all of it. They'd been forced into adulthood at a relatively young age and now they are pretty close to adulthood, and what we found from the beginning on the show is that anytime we pushed the limits of something, it was always a good thing."

For the record, Mundy admits that sometimes pushing the limits did cause him to wonder if they were going too far. Examples of those moments include when Marty gave baby Zeke to Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), the killing of Ben, and a final season moment with Marty working for the cartel in Mexico. At least thus far, though, "each time we did it, it seemed to deepen the storytelling rather than push people away," he reflects.

That deep story within the first three seasons alone helped the show pick up multiple major television awards, including two Screen Actors Guild statues for Bateman in the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series category and two consecutive Emmy Awards for Garner in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category. The final season, which was split into two seven-episode parts, is eligible for one more round of awards season, beginning with Emmy FYC in the spring and summer of 2022.

The critics have also responded well to the show, including more favorably over time. The show earned a 66 Metascore in its first season but a 77 for its third and a 78 for its fourth.

Mundy didn't let the success of the show alter his vision for the story, though.

"I was always somewhere between ecstatically happy and relieved that people seemed to like it, but we always worked in a vacuum, honestly. We would all be pretty hard on ourselves, so if we could come to a place where we felt good about it then that was good enough," he says.

He does admit that the writers' conversation among each other became a big part of closing out character arcs. However, that conversation, especially if it carries over to the audience's response to the final episodes, is what marks a successful show for him.

"There was a split in the writers' room about how judgmental people might have been about the Byrdes and whether or not people felt like they needed to be punished," he admits, adding that in the room they "debated a lot — a lot, a lot."

As many terrible things as Marty and Wendy did, and as high as the body count was over the seasons, Ozark also became known for infusing dry humor in unexpected moments to cut the tension. That tonal balance was one of the most important things to keep up in its final run, Mundy says, even though there would be more loss before the final credits rolled.

"The stakes have to be much higher," he explains. "For us, emotionally Wendy allowing her brother to die, that's a pretty high emotional bar. I think all of Season 4 exists in the echo of that act. But because of that, when something happened, it had to really have an impact. Wyatt's death in the last episode of the first [part] was that. That was really to put [Ruth] in a place where she was going to have to make choices about who she wanted to be, what she wanted to do, how much she would risk revenge. But it just couldn't be the Wild West. Each decision needed to land emotionally in a very specific way."


Ozark is streaming now on Netflix.